Through the creatures Thou hast madeShow the brightness of Thy glory,Be eternal Truth displayedIn their substance transitory,Till green Earth and Ocean hoary,Massy rock and tender bladeTell the same unending story —“We are Truth in Form arrayed.”[….]Teach me so Thy works to readThat my faith,—new strength accruing,—May from world to world proceed,Wisdom’s fruitful search pursuing;Till, thy truth my mind imbuing,I proclaim the Eternal Creed,Oft the glorious theme renewingGod our Lord is God indeed.– from “A Student’s Evening Hymn” by James Clerk Maxwell, April 25 1853
The life and faith of James Clerk Maxwell has inspired generations of Christian academics. A successful researcher and administrator, Maxwell’s equations on electric and magnetic fields, according to Einstein, offered a “change in the conception of reality… the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton” (Einstein 1931). Maxwell directed the creation of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, putting in motion one of the most influential research labs in history. Throughout his career, Maxwell remained a dedicated Christian, teaching Sunday school and sending expositions of scripture in letters to friends. He even taught working men’s classes in London during the same period that he was developing his famous equations and inventing color photography (Hutchinson 1998).
However marvelous Maxwell’s achievements, my favorite Maxwell story is of a broken experiment that accidentally supported his hypothesis. It was 1861, and Maxwell was giving a lecture as a new member of the Royal Society. As he came on stage, three projectors were turned on; a trio of red, green, and blue filtered images superimposed to display the very first full-color photograph in history. Maxwell’s dramatic lecture also introduced experimental support for Young’s trichromatic color theory of vision. The nephew of a Scottish Baronet, Maxwell chose a tartan ribbon for this groundbreaking image:
[image: the first ever tri-chromatic color photograph, taken by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The audience loved Maxwell’s full-color wonder, but the experiment should not have worked. The photographic emulsions of the time were not sensitive to green, yellow, or red areas of the spectrum, so Maxwell and his collaborator Sutton’s red and green filtered photographs must have been showing something else. The answer came a hundred years later in 1961, when Ralph Evans, a researcher at Kodak, reproduced Maxwell and Sutton’s experiment in close chemical detail. Under a red filter, the photographic plates picked up a sizable amount of ultraviolet light from a red cloth (Evans 1961). With problems in the experiment unnoticed, other researchers and inventors were convinced that Maxwell had proved the viability of color photography and were inspired to create properly working techniques.
Maxwell’s sort-of invention of color photography reminds me of a letter he received from the Bishop of Gloucester, asking if current scientific thinking on the nature of light supported certain claims in Genesis. Maxwell replies:
The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.At the same time I think that each individual man should do all he can to impress his own mind with the extent, the order, and the unity of the universe, and should carry these ideas with him as he reads… passages [of the Bible] (Hutchinson 1998)
Maxwell argued that Christian researchers need both humility and wonder: the humility to recognize that our current explanations can be wrong, and the capacity to wonder at God through the world we explore.
We can see both of these qualities in a poem Maxwell wrote while a student at Cambridge. In this student prayer, the speaker prays for wisdom, efficiency, and good quality sleep while exploring the natural world alongside existing scholarly literature. The speaker begs that his mistakes be stifled gracefully, while his worthwhile ideas join a rising sacrifice of prayer through the ages. In the final stanza of this “Student’s Evening Hymn,” the themes of scholarship, observation, and theology converge in a life “renovated” by mercy and love, as the student is finally face to face with the Lord who watched over and supported his lifetime of research.
(final stanza of Maxwell’s A Student’s Evening Hymn)
Dear Lord of Light,Give me love aright to traceThine to everything created,Preaching to a ransomed raceBy Thy mercy renovated,Till with all thy fulness satedI behold thee face to faceAnd with Ardour unabatedSing the glories of thy grace.
Maxwell wrote about his scientific understanding of God in poetry. Do you ever bring together vastly different disciplines in how you think about or worship God? What in your work makes you want to worship? In what ways do you worship? Work in the lab? Poetry? Music? Field research?
Maxwell’s camera experiment is a good reminder that even great researchers need humility. What in your own work reminds you of human limits? Have you seen God transform even human mistakes to bring about something good?
- Einstein, A. Maxwell’s Influence on the Development of the Conception of Physical Reality, in “James Clerk Maxwell: A Commemorative Volume 1831-1931”, 66-73 Cambridge University Press: 1931
- Evans, Ralph M. “Maxwell’s Color Photograph.” Scientific American 205, 118-128 (Nov 1961)
- Hutchinson, Ian. “James Clerk Maxwell and the Christian Proposition.” MIT IAP Seminar: The Faith of Great Scientists, Jan 1998, 2006.
- Maxwell, James Clerk. “A Student’s Evening Hymn” from Campbell, Lewis; Garnet, William. The life of James Clerk Maxwell : with a selection from his correspondence and occasional writings and a sketch of his contributions to science. London : Macmillan: 1882.
Note: Originally titled The Accidental Camera and a Student’s Evening Hymn: James Clerk Maxwell on Faith and Science